October 25 & 26 — As we make our way to Shenandoah National Park, a couple other National Park Units are nearby – Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Antietam National Battlefield. A lot of history happened in these two locations that are only about 20 miles apart, and we couldn’t help but draw a significant connection between these two spots.
Harpers Ferry is the town in the ‘V’ where the Potomac River meets the Shenandoah River in West Virginia. People on the move – first the American Indians and later frontier pioneers – found their way through this natural corridor. Robert Harper started a ferry service across the Potomac here in 1747, thus his name was given to the town. George Washington picked Harpers Ferry as the site for a US Armory, with the rivers powering it and nearby commercial mills. Innovations in factories here in Harpers Ferry helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, this excellent geographic location was a hub in the early years of our country.
But arguably the most notable event in Harpers Ferry happened on October 16, 1859, when abolitionist John Brown, together with his anti-slavery followers, seized the weapons armory. Wanting to end slavery in the U.S., he armed enslaved blacks in the hopes of sparking a rebellion. His raid failed, and most of his men were killed or captured. Viewed by some as a hero and others as a lunatic terrorist, Brown was tried and executed for his actions, but his raid inspired further abolitionist sentiment and anti-slavery activities.
With John Brown’s raid, Harpers Ferry became a symbol of freedom. Storer College was founded here, with a mission primarily to educate former slaves, and writer, orator, social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass served as a Trustee. A century later, Harpers Ferry also played an important role in the early civil rights movement.
Finally, here at the confluence of the two rivers, three important trails meet: the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Canal towpath, and the Potomac Heritage Trail.
Antietam, the battle which took place just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland, is known as the bloodiest battle in the history of the United States. In one day – September 17, 1862 – 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or MIA. The details leading up to this day are too lengthy and complicated to include in this post, but in summary, the stakes were high and both sides were willing to fight to the death – the Confederacy for slavery; the Union for the United States to remain united. And President Abraham Lincoln had one more important objective riding on the outcome – the emancipation of slaves.
For over 12 hours, fighting ensued for 100,000 men in places like the Dunker Church, the East Woods, the West Woods, the Cornfield, the Sunken Road (later called Bloody Lane), and Burnside Bridge. In the end, General Lee had lost one quarter of his men, and he did not succeed at what he came to do: achieve a victory on Northern soil. Doing so here would have surely resulted in both Great Britain and France recognizing the Confederate states as a separate entity, thus allowing the South to secede. As darkness fell, both sides held their positions, but the casualties were staggering.
The following day, fighting was halted as both North and South took care of their wounded and buried their dead. That night, Lee’s Confederates marched back across the Potomac River and into Virginia.
The Union victory was a turning point in the Civil War, and just five days after the bloody battle at Antietam, President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation now tying the end of slavery to the preservation of the Union.
The Connection – What got started in Harpers Ferry three years before the bloody battle at Antietam was the reason fighting in Antietam came to be. Abolitionist John Brown’s riotous actions focused attention on the issue of slavery, and no doubt propelled the nation towards civil war. Three years later in September 1862, Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson captured 12,500 Union soldiers and forced the war’s largest surrender in Harpers Ferry. This gave General Lee the confidence that he could aggressively take the fight to Northern soil. The battle lines were drawn at Antietam.
Our National Parks – It was six years ago that Fred and I sat on a couch in downtown Chicago and watched the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan film series on public television – The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. For six evenings in a row we became engrossed in and mesmerized by the history of the parks and the story of their protection with the development of the National Park System run by a National Park Service. We vowed then (before we took marriage vows some two-and-a-half years later) that when we retired we would go out and visit all 59 of the National Parks, and as many of the other National Park Units, as we call them – National Battlefields, National Historical Parks, National Seashores and Lakeshores, National Preserves, etc. – as we could.
What we did and saw and learned at Antietam was incredible… remarkable… unforgettable. This was due primarily to the informative and impeccably-researched program that was given by NPS Park Ranger Dan Vermilya to accompany our two-hour ranger-led tour of the battlefield. He made history come alive as he enthusiastically told the story of the events that happened here on that day some 150 years ago. He related many stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things — thousands upon thousands even giving their lives — driven, as a memorial placard on the battlefield so eloquently states, ‘in maintenance of their principles.’ Ranger Dan concluded his program with one final story: that of a shoemaker, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh. Rodebaugh was an ordinary man; a soldier fighting in a Pennsylvania Regiment for the Union, and he was killed on this battlefield on September 17, 1862. Private Ellwood Rodebaugh was Ranger Dan’s great-great-great-grandfather, and was his inspiration to become an NPS Park Ranger. His remains were never identified, but through Ranger Dan, his story, and those of many others, lives on.
With our visit here and this outstanding program, we are once again reminded how fortunate we are as citizens of this great country to have this treasure – our National Parks – and for them we are profoundly grateful.